Saturday, March 15, 2014

Interview With James Felix McKenney

Writer, Producer, Director, radio host (of a horror film program about monsters including Bigfoot) and Seaborg maker

James Felix McKenney

In a genre full of workman hacks. He is a tremendous and unique filmmaker who has had a three picture partnership with horror icon Angus Scrimm: The Off Season (04), Automatons (06) and Satan Hates You (10).

These films have proved to be in my mind, the best work of these two men.  Season is a  claustrophobic thriller. Automatons is a surreal robot film and Satan Hates You is a commentary on religious education films made for horror fans. I have been lucky enough to see all of McKenney's films, including a monster flick Hypothermia starring Michael Rooker. I have also been lucky  enough to speak with Mr. McKenney on a few occasions. He is a nice man who has been very encouraging about horror scripts that I have written. He agreed to let me ask him some questions for this film blog, and I am very grateful.


 Since, from what I gleamed on your podcast, horror, you very much like low and even no budget horror films and with a few exceptions like Wolf and The Shining, horror tends to be low budget. Are you satisfied with the budgets you work on or would you like to make a bigger budget horror film?

James McKenney:
Well, I'd always like to have more money to work with and be able to pay people better, but the problem is that the big budget comes with too many strings attached. I had a taste of that with Hypothermia, and that was still a very low-budget movie. Working with small budget gives me and the team the freedom to be creative and do really interesting stuff. It also makes the process a lot more fun because you aren't dealing with dim-witted producers with over-inflated egos. Still, I wouldn't turn down a big budget. The paycheck would certainly come in handy and it would be interesting to see what that process is like. It's just not really a goal of mine.

I have this script called "World's Fair" which is sort of a dark fantasy with big dramatic parts for Angus Scrimm and Larry Fessenden. I wrote it in 2008 and it's the one script that all of my collaborators keep going back to and asking "When are we going to make that movie?" Somebody recently approached me wanting to make it on a shoestring budget and I just couldn't do it. I felt that the seriousness of the material and the people involved deserved a budget of at least what we had for Hypothermia in order for it to make it al that it could be. So I passed. The person who approached me ended up agreeing with me that it wasn't worth doing if we weren't going to do it right.


 Is the podcast coming back?

James McKenney

It wasn't a podcast, which is usually something that you can download at any time. "The MonsterPants Are On!" was a radio show that I had on Saturday afternoons on Cult Radio A-Go-Go which is a really fun internet radio station.

It's funny that you ask. I am currently working on a new podcast called "Before Nerds Were Cool" with my friend Laree Love, who is one of only two people who have worked on every MonsterPants feature. The concept is basically a nostalgic look back at fandom in the pre-internet age. I always love hearing people's stories about how they would obsess over photos in monster magazines for films they had to wait until they came on TV because there were no VCRs or quests for a particular comic book, VHS tape or other collectible. The show will mainly be Laree and I, but we will be having guests from time to time, including some of the folks who were on the radio show. It should be launching sometime in April. Information will be available on my website in the coming weeks.

Did you know Angus Scrimm prior to casting Off Season? His character seems very genuine and I wondered if that was from knowing him or was there simply an effort to take a scary horror iconic actor and humanize him, the way Vincent Price seemed sweet in some projects (Edward Scissorhands for instance)?
James McKenney
I did not. His character (along with many other things) in The Off Season was based on a neighbor I had when I was living in Los Angeles in 1996. When I was writing the script in 1997 and thinking about casting, I thought of Angus because I love Phantasm and always enjoy casting people against type. When we were finally in preproduction on the film in NYC in 2003, I happened to see an ad for a convention taking place on the East Coast the weekend before our shoot and Angus was the main guest. We figured we'd see if we could get him while he was out here, Tony Timpone put me in touch with his agent and we got him! We've been friends ever since. He's truly one of the sweetest people I've ever met.

Has there been a good Bigfoot movie?
James McKenney
Well, I'm not really an expert on Bigfoot films. That would be my friend Max Brooks. Max is obsessed with the genre and they guy who has been leaning on me to make one, which led to me writing the Bigfoot script that I've been shopping around. Like Max, I have a fondness for the 1970's films like The Legend of Bigfoot and Mysterious Monsters that took the approach of reenacting "real" Bigfoot sightings without showing the monster too much.

I know that you make your own figures that you sell. I also know that your films defy simple classification. You have claustrophobic horror, religious themed horror, cannibalistic horror and enviornmental message horror. What first captured your imagination with horror films: mood, monsters, gore effects or other things?
James McKenney
As a kid, it was definitely monsters. I was obsessed with the Frankenstein monster and that led to the other classic monsters. I have also always been a big fan of science fiction, ancient mythology and practical special effects. That's what did it for me. I later got into the more atmospheric stuff, which I love. Gore was never something I was really into. I never liked any of the 1980's slasher stuff. But I enjoy making gore effects in our films, because it's fun. But to me gore isn't serious. It's the punchline to a joke.
Is there room for improvisation in your films or is everything planned? Gina in Hypothermia, for instance, barely touches her lunch when she is out on the ice and might not eat all day, was there a specific reason for that?
James McKenney
Absolutely. I write everything I direct and the first thing I usually tell the actors is that the lines are not so precious and they should feel free to alter them in a way that makes them comfortable to them. I always encourage the actors to add their own thing. I probably give actors a lot less direction than most directors. I like to be surprised my what they come up with and then make adjustments if necessary. It's fun to see what other people discover in the script and how they interpret it. That's what makes the whole collaborative creative process interesting.

As for Hypothermia, that was completely something that actress Amy Chang was doing. I don't know if it was her character being nervous about the announcement that they were going to make to her boyfriend's parents or simply the fact that Amy was absolutely freezing out there and too cold to eat!

I liked a lot about Hypothermia. I liked the garbled dialog that the creature was listening to. I liked the fact that Rooker's character is so steady that, unlike the Steve character, even when his son dies, he never gets hot headed or does the wrong thing. Was this sort of old fashioned everyman hero what attracted Rooker to the part?
James McKenney
I have no idea what attracted Rooker to the part, aside from the paycheck! In real life he's a lot more like the Steve character than the character he was playing. He kept asking me, "Why don't they just hunt down that thing and shoot it?" Rooker's a hunter, a gun lover and a man of action, so he was definitely playing against type in that film. He's a great actor who really wants to just get through the conversational bits so he can get to the heavy emotional stuff and the action scenes, which he's really incredible in.

 I read that with Automatons, you set out to make a film like you remembered from earlier childhood, which is to say, half remembered or understood. This sort of reminded me of what Harmony Korine said about making Gummo. Basically, that he never remembers plot, only specific scenes, so he set out to make a film of scenes. Does what you were going for with Automatons still interest you and would you ever make another attempt to make a film like that?

James McKenney
I would love to make another movie like that. I dipped my toe into those waters this past fall when I attempted to make a web serial beginning with Chapter Four. After that first episode, it was going to go further into DIY effects and low budget sci-fi territory, very much like Automatons, but so few people downloaded the first one that we had to pull the plug on future chapters.

Some of my collaborators have been asking me for years to make another movie like Automatons. I have an idea for a sequel and a full story written out for a prequel. I'd love to do another low-rent effects movie like that again, but materials cost more than you'd think and you've got to feed people. It always comes down to finding the money to make the damn thing!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Re-Engaged (and a couple of Shirley Temple Movies)

I just got back from the State Theater. My favorite theater. I went with Vanessa, my favorite person to see Little Miss Broadway, the second film of a two film Shirley Temple marathon. I caught the first film, Poor Little Rich Girl, a few hours prior. V missed Girl because she was at work.
PLRG starred an 8 year old Shirley Temple. LMB was made two years later. Both films were directed by Irving Cummings; despite this, they are miles apart in quality.

Poor Little Rich Girl has a simple plot. Little girl (Barbara Barry) is lost, falls in with some show business people and becomes an overnight star. It is somewhat like Oliver Twist except its unsavory elements through the thing off balance. Barbara's, a rich girl with an overworked father that runs a soap company, is sent to school but on the way there her nanny who leaves Barbara alone for a minute to retrieve her purse is hit by a car. Barbara, not knowing what happened to the nanny, only knows she is without guidance and uses that as an excuse to pretend to be a character she read about in adventure books. Very little is said about the nanny after the car hits her. Some strange man throws her purse in the garbage then seems to have designs on Barbara. This is never quite explained, but the guy seems creepy and wants to give her candy a few times. The most successful aspect of the film is Temple herself. She is such a sunny persona that even if we don't understand why she pretends to be a character from a book when encountering the world and its problems, we do understand why all kinds of people are receptive toward her (in a healthy way) and want to help her. Actor Claude Gillingwater shows up as Mr Barry's rival and has great scenes with Miss Temple. There are no memorable songs in this one, and the songs that are played feel a  bit forced into the plot.

Claude Gillingwater also shows up as a judge in Little Miss Broadway. Jimmy Durante shows up too, and he is great as always. The songs in Broadway feel weaved into the plot a little more, perhaps because the plot involves a group of variety acts in a motel.  There are clearly defined good and bad people; all the actors are convincing; Be Optimistic is a catchy toon. And there is so much sweetness in the film, for instance the way the hotel helps acts get booked that are way behind in their rent and the way the acts pawn stuff to keep the hotel in business.  Loved it. And I am glad I was able to watch it with my gal.

We got re-engaged last Friday (2/28). This was followed  by  a few days in a hotel. The memories of that weekend will carry me through any dark days that are coming. And of course dark days will be rare with such a wonderful person in my life.


It was a low-key proposal. We ate at Tokyo Express in Modesto then walked down the street to the Gallo Center, and I proposed there before the Bill Medley concert.

Many of you know, I lost my best friend recently. A month before he passed, I brought this re-proposal up with him and we planned it, deciding that Medley was the right show for the evening.
He is a singer of romantic songs (Time of My Life, Unchained Melody). And Medley did not disappoint, bringing romance and a good deal of humor to his 2 hour set.

Here is what I said to V in the proposal. I think she liked it quite a bit:

As you know, this was Bill's favorite resturant. I talked this whole idea over with him about a month ago. He thought it was great. He thought very highly of you.
I started planning a sort of life change a few weeks ago, the clothes abandoning reviewing for the movie site. I made these changes so I could focus on the relationships I want to cultivate (more than even having lost a few recently) and the kind of legacy I hope to leave.

Bob Dylan said that destiny is the feeling that you know something about yourself and what's going to happen to you that no one else does.

I have been thinking a lot about destiny lately. I knew when I was very ill, if I got better, I would make films. Despite any and all set backs, I know it more today.

I knew that first month of meeting you, the day you could not make my reading and all I felt was your absence, that I loved you very much. I know it more today.

Stick with me. Our world's gonna be great.